UK Libraries and Museums Unite to Save ‘Amazing’ Lost Library from Private Buyers

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UK Libraries and Museums Unite to Save ‘Amazing’ Lost Library from Private Buyers


From the British Library to the Brontë Parsonage Museum, a consortium of libraries and museums have come together in an “unprecedented” effort to raise £ 15million and save a “surprisingly large” body of literary manuscripts for the nation.

The plans were drawn after the announcement last month that the ‘lost’ Honresfield library was due to be auctioned at Sotheby’s this summer. Almost entirely inaccessible since 1939, the library was established by Victorian industrialists William and Alfred Law at the turn of the 20th century, and is a literary treasure that has excited experts dancing – and warning that action needed to be taken for it. prevent sold piecemeal to private collectors.

The initiative to prevent ‘priceless’ manuscripts from authors such as the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, Walter Scott and Robert Burns from falling into private hands is led by the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL) charity. . It includes institutions such as the Bodleian, the British Library and the National Library of Scotland; and smaller organizations such as Abbotsford, Walter Scott’s home in Melrose; Jane Austen’s house in Chawton; the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth; and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.

The FNL is in talks with private philanthropists and public funders as it seeks to raise the purchase price by £ 15million for the entire Honresfield library. It is also launching a crowdfunding call.

Not only does the Honresfield Library contain an ‘incredibly rare’ handwritten manuscript of Emily Brontë’s poems, which many scholars believed lost, along with other Brontë notes, sketches, letters and books, but it was also revealed on Thursday. , includes two “extremely important” letters from Austen to his sister Cassandra. One was written on the eve of a ball, when Austen humorously anticipated the end of a love affair: “Finally the day has come when I have to flirt for the last time with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive it, it will be over. My tears flow at this melancholy idea. The other sees her discussing the reception of Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. Only three of these early autograph letters are currently held in a UK national collection, the majority at the Morgan Library in New York.

The full working autograph manuscript of the novel Rob Roy by Walter Scott, from the Honresfield Library. It is the only manuscript of Scott’s novel in private hands. Photography: Sotheby’s

The collection, which contains over 500 manuscripts, first editions and letters, also includes the full working manuscript of Sir Walter Scott’s iconic novel, Rob Roy, and a first volume of poems by Robert Burns in his own hand.

According to the FNL, a private library of British literature of such importance has not been put on the open market for many decades, and it is unlikely that we will reappear.

As the FNL raises the funds, the sellers and Sotheby’s have agreed to postpone the auction of the first part of the library, which was scheduled for July, so that the money can be collected for the entire library. be preserved for the nation. The FNL intends that once purchased, each individual item will be forwarded to the appropriate institution across the UK – so that the Austen letters may reside in Hampshire, the Brontë material in Haworth and the Scott manuscripts in Roxburghshire, for example.

“Once in a generation, a collection of books and manuscripts has sprung up out of almost nowhere that is met with a mixture of awe and stunned silence, followed by concerted action to make them public property,” said John Scally. , administrator of the FNL and national. librarian and managing director of the National Library of Scotland. “The UK-wide consortium is committed to raising funds to ensure we can save the Honresfield Library for everyone to share and enjoy. “

FNL administrator and treasurer Charles Sebag-Montefiore described the charity’s plans as “a crucial national effort to raise enough funds to conserve this unique treasure in Britain”.

The consortium was formed after the Brontë Society sounded the alarm over the potential sale of the manuscripts, describing it last month as a “calculated act of scattering heritage.” As more and more institutions became involved in the campaign, the FNL was approached.

“We were able to come up with a different kind of model – a library that is an amazing time capsule in itself, preserved in the public interest, but distributed across the country,” said Kathryn Sutherland, Oxford scholar, who works on the initiative.

Gabriel Heaton, specialist in English literature and historical manuscripts at Sotheby’s, said the auction house was “happy to play our part in this potential outcome for this great library.”

“This proposed acquisition is a fitting tribute to the voracious literary interests of the Law brothers and the excellent care their families have given to this material for over a century. This unprecedented initiative is a testament to the continued power of literature to inspire audiences so many years after these writers first wrote, ”he added.

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